Future directions for our transportation networks

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 1, 2011

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

We are wasting too much time in traffic; we deserve better choices. Most of us would prefer to live in more walkable communities, making our lives more pleasant and healthy.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

These two are tightly linked. Thus, looking at improving transportation without looking at improving our land use will yield sub-optimal proposals. The alliances are correct that we don’t have the resources to do it all, so priorities must be set.

To maximize economic and quality-of-life benefits for the region, transportation investments over the next couple of decades, except for road maintenance, should be devoted only to building efficient and effective transit and pedestrian/bicycle networks.

To obtain the best value from these investments, growth of residential, office, commercial and public facilities should be located only in walkable neighborhoods at major transit stations.

Easier said than done. But we do need a clear vision of the region we’d like to see 25 years from now. We can start moving in that direction immediately.

— David W. Sears, Bethesda

I received many responses like this to my request [Commuter page, June 26] for proposals on our transportation future, which I made while reviewing a new report by the transportation alliances of Northern Virginia and Suburban Maryland for the 2030 Group, an association of business people who believe we need to focus on a cluster of projects that will have the biggest regional impact on congestion.

While the report’s priorities list includes new bridges, regional highway bypasses and Capital Beltway upgrades, many letter writers focused on transit and land use.

Don’t be auto-centric

This writer gets bonus points for considering how we’d pay for what we want.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The themes presented in “Business groups target traffic congestion” came from a vested interest, were based on an unscientific survey and were mostly auto-centric. There should be some consideration of measures to reduce the need for roads.

There are studies at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that weigh different approaches to these problems, and they generally show that adding more road capacity does not reduce congestion. The regional bypasses, complete with bridges, would succeed in opening up vast areas in rural Prince William, Loudoun and Montgomery counties for development. It would be good business, as developers could buy cheap greenfields and build sprawling office parks. People who lived or worked there would have no choice but to drive, thus adding to the problem.

Rather, create conditions for attracting more people and jobs near existing infrastructure, like Metro stations in Prince George’s, Fairfax and Montgomery counties. People could reverse commute, so they wouldn’t even need more Metro capacity (as long as it is well-maintained) and they could walk and bike. The cost would be minimal.

Given the above, a network of transit connections among activity centers around the region would work better. It could be bus rapid transit, but much of it should probably be light rail. By providing more linkages, people can reach a wider variety of destinations without a car.

Connect the spokes of Metro, through such projects as Maryland’s Purple Line, but extend it to Virginia. Another critical route the 2030 Group left off its list is transit service to Fort Belvoir and other Base Closure and Realignment sites.

And wherever there is a transit station, there should be auxiliary shuttle buses and bike facilities.

Surveys say the public opposes a gas tax increase, but it should be one revenue source. Another could be to capture the increased land value in station areas as density is increased. Add tolls sparingly.

— Roger Diedrich, Fairfax

I think the business groups would respond that, yes, they have a vested interest: In the D.C. region’s long-term future, in maintaining a livable environment for employees, in ensuring that those employees and their families aren’t driven mad by their commutes.

“The problem is that governments at all levels seem incapable of doing big things today,” said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.

I challenge some of the project priorities, but not the idea that we need to decide what we’re trying to do and do it.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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